An American woman in Europe chronicles the ups and downs of life with arthritis (RA) while working, parenting and living abroad
Here I sit on an October day in 2012 looking out of my balcony doors onto the dense fog lifting from the lake below. The sun has finally shown up determined to inspire us that this too will be a pleasant, crisp Autumn day. As my two-year-old son naps, I begin a new "journey" in America. I have this afternoon's play date on my mind and hope that my son will rest...otherwise it will be an entirely different afternoon ahead! This could be any parent's story of course, but mine has some slightly different twists. I am a woman, mother, wife, daughter, friend, and colleague who lives, no, thrives, with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). I live in Switzerland just outside Zurich at the Lake of Zurich with my family. Why, you may ask, is she writing about starting a new journey in America then? There is a BIG ocean between here and THERE!
Well, this IS a new journey in America for me since I left the US 12 years ago to pursue my dreams both personal and professional by moving here. Now thanks to social media and my iPad I can stay connected with what is happening back home much more easily. That also means connecting with arthritis bloggers and resources like CreakyJoints and keeping up with new strategies both individual, legislative, and medicinal. I have been very encouraged by the fresh and fun approach CJ takes to engage others and raise awareness both among those affected and not by arthritis. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share my ideas, experiences, and thoughts here in this blog with you, and I welcome your comments, questions, and inspiration.
Why do I call my new CreakyJoints blog CHutes & Ladders?
Well, I LOVE plays on words! First, the capitalized "CH" is not a typo. It is the official abbreviation for the country of Switzerland, the Helvetic Confederation, where I live and from where I'll be contributing my stories and experiences. (hyperlink Helvetic Confederation with this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland)Second, I loved that board game when I was a kid. It reminds me of a whimsical childhood, and one which I will strive every day to provide for my son despite living with RA. Equally, being a parent [with RA] also has its ups and downs be it dealing with the terrible twos and time outs or my own pain levels and fatigue.
Third, the analogous ups and downs of the game of life as this famous game symbolizes are also my experience living many years now in a foreign country and being married to a man from yet another culture than this one or my own. Our journey to navigate this curious land along with raising a "third culture" child are full of their own highs and lows.So here is my story...!I have lived with RA for over 20 years and was diagnosed, after 8 agonizing months of pain and misdiagnoses, during my freshman year of university. I have my theories how I developed this tricky illness, but I also feel that by being 19 years old then and attending a big university, I just wanted to LIVE, learn, and have fun. I of course needed to get to the bottom of why I endured so much excruciating pain and swelling, however, it was the early stages and my Rheumatologist made all the difference in my success and outlook. They truly are a blessing, these specialists, and I immediately had a strong connection with mine.I remember leaving his office that day after being diagnosed with a big sense of relief. I always think that was a curious emotion to have, yet anyone who has waited impatiently for test results and endured visits with numerous doctors and many failed medications to determine the cause can understand. My parents and I had no idea what RA was or what to do. I was just relieved it had a name and that a treatment plan existed. It wasn't terminal, but it grabbed our attention. Thank goodness we had months to get used to it and later developed coping strategies as the days went on. My mother also felt an overwhelming sense of guilt following my diagnosis, since her doubts about my pain and discomfort and lack of energy were not due to a teenager just trying to get out of working a summer job (at the company where my mom worked) or avoiding chores. I overlooked this and didn't hold it against her. I guess I saw that charity even in my moment of need was necessary for us all. I just wanted to get back to college and learn and have fun!With that, I guess despite always having fire in my belly, this diagnosis became a springboard for me to not look back. I was more determined than ever not to give up on my dreams to become fluent in French and have an experience learning or later living abroad. You can actually say I was very stubborn on these points. Honestly, what did I have to lose? I never wanted it to be an excuse, and many years later, I realized just how amazed my own father was with my determination. He told me long after I had moved to Switzerland that he and anyone else would have fully understood if I had wanted to throw in the towel and hunker down. I looked at him just puzzled since I realized he was so proud of me and found the words to tell me in his own way how proud he was that I never gave up. I engaged and empowered myself to not be a sad story of, "oh, that poor girl."Of course, living abroad and being exposed to many languages in one given day are not the easiest life I could have chosen for myself, yet it's exactly the kind of challenges my brain always hungers for. It was the same when I was 9 years old and chose to play the clarinet over any other instrument: 1. my mother had played it too, and 2. it looked very difficult with all of those metal keys that I just HAD to master it! (From grade school up through high school I was always first chair!)
So, back to those college years. I jumped at the opportunity to study in Strasbourg, France my junior year of college to fully immerse myself in the culture, language, and challenge myself unlike ever before and attend university courses - all which directly impacted my overall college GPA... gulp!It was simply amazing, eye opening, and life-changing and life-affirming. Of course, I changed so much apparently after that 1 year abroad given everything I experienced, tasted, and challenged myself with, that my parents and I had some really difficult "reintegration" experiences!! The end result of that year was that my GPA IMPROVED and was the best I had been able to do even taking into consideration classes back home...in English. I woke up in France. The challenge was palpable and omnipresent. I pursued and pushed myself, spending hours with a dictionary, and watching "Friends" episodes on TV to get the hang of the spoken language. Nobody sounds like a grammar textbook!!Then, fast forward many years later after returning to the US, graduating, and then working for a Swiss medical diagnostics company in Indianapolis, my hometown. I even worked in Germany for a stint and just knew after these 2 experiences abroad that this was the life for me.I ended up in Switzerland after taking another leap of faith - a French-speaking country which boasted the highest concentration of healthcare industry opportunities the world over. I was risky but not crazy. My parents gasped when I left my job in the US to join a friend in Switzerland since it meant saying goodbye to a coveted private health insurance plan. However, I was 27 then and just knew if I didn't give it my all and go after what I really wanted, then I would set my life and future up for misery. There was absolutely no question. At worst, I would return with my bags but not with my tail between my legs!Since then I completed my Masters in Italy (in English) on International Healthcare Management (a balance to my heavy liberal arts degrees, French & Anthropology. I met my Italian husband in Zurich, got married, and became a mother almost 3 years ago. I work for a local social entrepreneur within a foundation focused on rare diseases. My French is fluent, my German is quite good albeit will always be my "work in progress", and I even had to absorb Italian since my in-laws only speak it.
I'm excited to share my stories and experiences with the CreakyJoints audience. Let's take the ups and downs, the chutes and ladders, of life with arthritis together and share some laughs and inspiration together!